Chapter 1: The Holding War
IN the South-western Pacific in April 1943 the tide was turning against the Japanese. Their thrust towards Wau in New Guinea had just been defeated, and in the Solomons in February they had abandoned Guadalcanal. They still held, however, a vast arc stretching from the Aleutians, through the western Pacific, New Guinea and the Indies to Burma, and had held it for about a year.
After many setbacks in the west the Allies were meeting with some success against the Germans and Italians. The British victory at El Alamein in November 1942 had been followed by Allied landings in North Africa. In April 1943 the British Eighth Army advancing west across North Africa linked with the British First Army, supplemented by an American corps. Tunis fell to the British and Bizerta to the Americans on 7th May. About 250,000 prisoners were taken and the German Army of Africa was destroyed. With the loss of North Africa the spirit and power of Italy were broken.
In November 1942 the Russians had startled the Germans by suddenly going over to the offensive. All along the line the Germans were pushed back. On 31st January 1943 the commander of their Sixth Army surrendered at Stalingrad; nearly 90,000 prisoners were taken. In the same month the Russians broke the investment of Leningrad. Like the British victory in Libya and the Allied victory in Tunisia, the Russian victories could not be measured wholly or even mainly in terms of ground gained. The British, American and Russian armies had won a moral ascendancy over the Germans and had inflicted vast human and material damage.
President Roosevelt, Mr Churchill and the Combined Chiefs of Staff1 had met at Casablanca in January to decide Allied policy for 1943. The American Joint Chiefs of Staff, to whom direct control of the war against Japan had been entrusted, considered it opportune to prepare for a large-scale offensive in the Pacific. Before the Casablanca Conference there was no comprehensive plan for the defeat of Japan.2 Faced by the Germans across the Channel, the British Chiefs of Staff still emphasised the importance of beating Germany first, and containing Japan in the Pacific until the defeat of Germany should make larger Allied forces available.
At the first meeting of the Combined Chiefs at Casablanca on 14th January, before the arrival of the two main figures next day, the American naval chief, Admiral King, criticised the small dimensions of the Allied effort against Japan. In December 1942 he had made an estimate of the percentage of the total war effort (men, ships, planes, munitions) of all the Allies, including China, then used in the Pacific. His conclusion was that only 15 per cent of the total Allied resources then engaged was being used there. The remaining 85 per cent was being used in Europe, Africa, the Battle of the Atlantic and in the build-up of forces in Britain.3
It is not easy to see how King arrived at these figures in view of the fact that, in December, the greater part of the United States Navy was in the Pacific; nine infantry divisions and two Marine divisions were also there, whereas there were only eight American infantry divisions in the United Kingdom and North Africa. There were, however, more American air groups in the western than the eastern theatre – 34 against 25.4 King’s statistics were indicative not so much of the actual situation as of his determination to spare no efforts to have larger forces allotted to the Pacific.
At Casablanca not only Admiral King but General Marshall, although agreeing that Germany must be defeated first, urged that the hard-won initial successes in the Pacific must be followed up promptly and that Japan must not be allowed to build up her strength and launch fresh offensives.
Marshall informed the British Chiefs that the Americans wished to strike the Japanese defences in the rear and on the flanks (for example, in Burma). The American Chiefs thought that the Japanese were establishing a strong defensive line from the Solomons to Timor. King stated that the fighting in the Solomons and eastern New Guinea was designed to secure the approaches to Australia “and the key to the situation is Rabaul”. After the capture of Rabaul, which, in the Casablanca planning, was almost taken for granted, King urged that the Philippines be attacked across the Central Pacific, using stepping stones in the Marshalls, Carolines and Marianas.
The British Chiefs were not keen yet to take any large-scale initiative against Japan. They were apprehensive lest a large effort even in Burma should reduce the strength of the main attack on Germany, although they agreed on the desirability of reopening the Burma Road. Nor were they enthusiastic about attacking Truk or the Philippines before the fall of Germany.
President Roosevelt, however, regretted that so little attention appeared to have been paid by the Combined Chiefs to China. He said that “island hopping strategy” promised to be too lengthy and “that some other method of striking at Japan must be found”. As American submarines were reputed to have sunk 1,000,000 tons of Japanese shipping (one-sixth of the Japanese merchant marine) in the first year of the war, Roosevelt suggested that submarine warfare be intensified and supplemented by air attacks on Japanese shipping from Chinese airfields. Mr Churchill made it evident that he was mainly interested in operations in the Mediterranean.
A lively discussion ensued between the Combined Chiefs on 17th and 18th January when the Americans reaffirmed their desire to keep the initiative in the Pacific, and Marshall stated emphatically that the American people would not tolerate “another Bataan”. In a warning which must have shaken the British Chiefs of Staff, Marshall stressed that enough forces must be kept in the Pacific because “a situation might arise in the Pacific at any time that would necessitate the United States regretfully withdrawing from the commitments in the European Theatre”.5 King supported Marshall and informed the British that many of the demands in the Pacific came from Australia – a British country.6
By 18th January the Combined Chiefs had finished their recommendations for Pacific objectives in 1943. After the Americans had offered to provide some ships and landing craft for Burma, the Combined Chiefs agreed that the recapture of Burma should begin in 1943, but that they would discuss it again later in the year. The Americans considered that the Japanese forces must remain under continual, powerful and extensive pressure. Because the Japanese were operating on short interior lines, the Allies could keep the initiative along their 12,000-mile line and prevent the Japanese consolidating only by attacking areas important enough to draw “counter-action” which would be defeated and would result in whittling away the enemy’s strength, particularly at sea and in the air. The Americans therefore considered that these operations were necessary:
1. Seizure of the Solomons, of eastern New Guinea as far as Lae and Salamaua, and of the New Britain–New Ireland area;
2. Seizure of Kiska and Attu in the Aleutians;
3. After Rabaul, seizure and occupation of the Gilberts, Marshals, and Carolines through Truk and extension of the occupation of New Guinea to the Dutch border;
4. Operations in Burma designed to keep China in the war and increase the employment of China-based aircraft against shipping.
The British Chiefs feared that the number of operations envisaged by the Americans in the Pacific might jeopardise success against Germany, and therefore suggested that the operations in the Pacific for 1943 should be limited to operations against Burma and Rabaul.
Finally the Combined Chiefs of Staff agreed that in the Pacific the Allies were to retain the initiative and prepare for a full-scale offensive when Germany had been defeated. At the outset the Allies would take Rabaul, make secure the Aleutians, and then advance from east to west across the Pacific through the Gilberts and Marshalls towards Truk and the Marianas.
With strategic plans for the war against Japan settled, the Americans now gave the British a statement of how they intended to carry them out. The Combined Chiefs noted a memorandum from General Marshall, Admiral King and General Arnold that the Allies in 1943 would “work towards positions from which land-based air can attack Japan”. The Joint Chiefs’ memorandum continued that “assault [by ground troops] on Japan is remote and may well not be found necessary”.
For the final top-level meeting on 23rd January the Combined Chiefs produced an eleven-page paper covering their proposals for the conduct of the war in 1943.
It is interesting to note that as a result of eleven days of deliberations they gave top priority to “security of sea communications”. This meant that they considered the Atlantic Ocean the most important battlefield of the war and that the shortage of escort vessels was the first need to be met. Second on the priorities list – and closely involved with the first item – was “assistance to Russia in relation to other commitments”. Third on the list was “Operations in the Mediterranean” – the plan for the capture of Sicily, giving as the target day “the favourable July moon”. ... Fourth on the list was “Operations in and from the United Kingdom” – provisions for the continued build-up of American forces. ... Fifth on the list was “Pacific and Far East Theatre” – operations in the Aleutians, from Midway towards Truk and Guam, advances in the East Indies and the reconquest of Burma. The three final items on the list were provisions for a study of the Axis oil positions – for naval and air command in West Africa – and a provision that “all matters connected with Turkey should be handled by the British”.7
Thus, in theory, the Pacific war theatre came only fifth on the list. To attain even this degree of priority the American Joint Chiefs had been forced to abandon their opposition to a Mediterranean offensive in 1943 and had accepted postponement of the invasion of France until 1944. When he saw the paper of the Combined Chiefs at the conference on 23rd January Harry L. Hopkins scribbled a pencilled note to Field Marshal Dill: “Jack, I think this is a very good paper and damn good plan.”8 The paper and plans certainly were good as far as the war against Germany was concerned; but about the Pacific war, particularly in the South and South-West Pacific Areas, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff and through them the Combined Chiefs were less realistic and less well informed. It was one thing to capture Sicily in July; another to capture Rabaul in May.
Prospects in Burma were even less promising. In the whole vast Burma–India–Ceylon theatre Field Marshal Wavell, at the beginning of 1943, commanded 14 divisions and 24 independent brigades, of which 5 divisions were deployed in eastern India and Assam; but most of Wavell’s formations were under-equipped and under-trained. The Japanese Burma Area Army, formed in March 1943, contained 4 well-trained divisions, Wavell had opened a limited offensive against Akyab in December 1942, but by March it was evident that it was doomed, and “by the start of the monsoon, our forces in Arakan were back approximately in the positions from which the advance had begun five months earlier”9
Wavell had originally planned to assist the reconquest of Burma by allowing Brigadier O. C. Wingate’s specially trained jungle force, known as the “77th Indian Infantry Brigade”, to penetrate into central Burma and thus assist the Allied campaigns in north and south Burma. Because
of restricted resources, however, he had then decided to help a possible advance from the north by Chinese forces commanded by the American, Lieut-General Joseph W. Stilwell, by sending Wingate into upper Burma to cut the enemy’s line of communication to Myitkyina, Bhamo and Lashio. When Wavell heard from Stilwell that the Chinese had no intention of advancing, he decided to let Wingate’s force go ahead for the sake of gaining experience.
On 7th February Wingate’s men left Imphal in seven columns to cut the main north and south railway between Mandalay and Myitkyina, harass the enemy in the Shwebo area, cross the Irrawaddy, and cut the railway line between Maymyo and Lashio. By 18th February the main body had crossed the Chindwin although two columns were ambushed and dispersed. The railway line was successfully blown and Wingate then crossed the Irrawaddy in March, but, because of many difficulties – the climate, the health of the men and animals, the lack of water, and the danger of arranging dropping of supplies from the air when large numbers of Japanese were about – operations against the Mandalay–Lashio railway were abandoned, and Wingate retraced his steps. When the Japanese opposed a crossing of the Irrawaddy at Inywa, Wingate broke up his force into dispersal groups most of which returned to India by June.
Describing this operation Wavell wrote:
The enterprise had no strategic value, and about one-third of the force which entered Burma was lost. But the experience gained of operations of this type, in supply dropping from the air, and in jungle warfare and Japanese methods, was invaluable. The enemy was obviously surprised and at a loss, and found no effective means to counter the harassment of our columns.10
The Japanese occupation of Burma during 1942 had isolated China except for a tenuous air supply route over 500 miles of the Himalayan “hump” between Assam and Yunnan. By early 1943 China’s position was serious, with the 39 divisions of the Japanese Kwantung and China Expeditionary Armies controlling strategic areas. Theoretically China had about 300 divisions but most of these were well below brigade strength and of dubious quality.
It was not long before the salient but unpalatable fact that the war against Japan would take second place began to be placed before the Australians. Broadcasting on 18th April the Prime Minister, Mr Curtin, spoke of the Casablanca decisions and made Australia’s position clear.
To the people of Australia I say that the holding war imposed on Australia by the decisions of the Casablanca Conference ... means that our resources will be used up in many cases, worn out in many instances, and strained to a serious extent in others. ... To our Allies I say that the Australian Government accepts global strategy insofar as it conditions Australia’s employment as an offensive base until Hitler is beaten, but it does not accept a flow of war material, notably aircraft, which does not measure up to the requirements of a holding war.
Five days before the beginning of the Casablanca Conference the American Joint Chiefs of Staff had requested General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief of the South-West Pacific Area, to submit plans for the capture of Rabaul. MacArthur had replied that his forces would be unable to take part in any further operations without a long period of rest and preparation; the 7th Australian and 32nd American Divisions were being withdrawn for “reconstruction” after the Papuan campaigns, the 1st Marine Division was recuperating after Guadalcanal, and the 9th Australian Division was just returning from the Middle East.11
The “beat Hitler first” strategy was the cause of intense chagrin to MacArthur who did not accept it with the same resignation as Curtin and who repeatedly complained of the paucity of forces at his disposal. At Casablanca it was clear that General Marshall would not take undue risks in the Pacific, that General Arnold was convinced that daylight bombing of Europe was the quickest way to break down Axis resistance, but that Admiral King on the other hand was primarily interested in the Pacific war. King’s support, naturally, meant support for the predominantly naval Central Pacific Command of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, whose orders up to date had been to hold the island positions necessary to secure lines of communication between America and the South-West Pacific Area, prevent the Japanese from further expansion in the Central Pacific, defend North America, protect essential sea and air routes, and support MacArthur’s forces.
On the day when the Casablanca Conference ended Admiral Nimitz met Admiral William F. Halsey, commander of the South Pacific Area, at Noumea, to discuss their next objective after Guadalcanal. The two admirals believed that they would receive no substantial naval reinforcements during the period of the fight for Tunis and the projected invasion of Sicily, or while submarines remained a grave threat in the Atlantic. They had already rejected any plan to assault Rabaul as being too costly. It was indeed strange that the Combined Chiefs at Casablanca should have based most of their Pacific plans on the early capture of Rabaul, at a time when the three Pacific commanders (MacArthur, Nimitz and Halsey) realised and stated the impracticability of capturing this great Japanese base with their existing forces. Nimitz and Halsey considered that their next move should be a northward advance in the Solomons to Munda on New Georgia where the Japanese had built a good airfield; and Nimitz insisted that this central Solomons operation should be conducted by the navy. Here he collided with MacArthur who was equally firm that Halsey’s command should be under his wing. MacArthur’s stand was backed by the Joint Chiefs’ directive of July 1942, under which the three tasks were primarily the responsibility of the South-West Pacific Area, but the admirals felt that, as MacArthur had his hands full in New Guinea, the navy should run the central Solomons operations.
The growing concept that the main advance against Japan should be made across the vast reaches of the Central Pacific was strongly resisted by MacArthur, who considered that the quickest way to Japan was by a series of hops along the coast of New Guinea and on to the Philippines.
It was too early for such thoughts as what follows shows. On 28th February MacArthur and his staff completed an outline plan for the achievement of the second and third tasks set in the Joint Chiefs’ directive of July 1942. It was very tentative and no fixed dates were set for the five operations which it outlined. The first of these would be the capture of Lae by an airborne force landing in the Markham Valley cooperating with an amphibious force moving along the coast in small craft; Salamaua would be bypassed but important bases in the Huon Peninsula–Vitiaz Strait area such as Finschhafen would be captured, and a combined airborne and amphibious attack would finally be launched against Madang. The second operation, after the capture of the Huon Peninsula–Vitiaz Strait area, would be the capture of New Georgia in the Solomons by the South Pacific Command. The South-West Pacific and South Pacific Commands would then launch amphibious assaults on New Britain and Bougainville. The fourth and fifth operations would be the capture of Kavieng and Rabaul respectively.
MacArthur believed that in order to carry out his part of this ambitious plan he would need to be reinforced by five infantry divisions, and about 3,200 combat and transport aircraft. He considered that, with this extra strength, his command and the South Pacific Command, which, he suggested, needed no reinforcement, would be able to drive the Japanese back to Truk and Wewak during 1943. Even Rabaul might be captured.
After MacArthur had asked permission to send staff officers to Washington to explain his plans, the Joint Chiefs called a conference of representatives of the three Pacific commanders beginning in Washington on 12th March. MacArthur sent Lieut-General George C. Kenney, the commander of the Fifth Air Force; Major-General Richard K. Sutherland, his Chief of Staff; and Brigadier-General Stephen J. Chamberlin, his senior Operations Officer. Halsey was represented by Captain Miles R. Browning, his Chief of Staff, and others; and Nimitz by his deputy, Rear-Admiral Raymond A. Spruance and others. After much discussion, during which the navy insisted that the Pacific was and would continue to be “a naval problem as a whole” and should be unified under a naval command, Marshall suggested a solution which he admitted “skirted” the question of combining the commands. Under this proposal Halsey would retain control of operations in the Solomons but would be subject to general directives from MacArthur, while naval units attached as task forces would remain under Nimitz’s control. King said that as the Joint Chiefs had undertaken to prevent difficult situations developing between MacArthur and Nimitz, he would agree with Marshall, provided that control of the fleet remained “in a fluid state”.
When the Joint Chiefs announced the maximum reinforcements for the Pacific in 1943 it was obvious that the plan would have to be
considerably modified. Two infantry divisions would be sent to MacArthur in the second and third quarters of the year; by December the aggregate number of American-manned aircraft in the South and South-West Pacific Areas would have been increased from 1,476 to 2,663. Additional naval units requested would be supplied, if available, by the Pacific Fleet.
On MacArthur’s behalf Sutherland suggested, therefore, that the scope of the plan be much reduced and that the tasks for 1943 be limited to the capture of the Solomons, the North-east coast of New Guinea as far as Madang, and western New Britain. He also suggested that airfields should be constructed on Kiriwina and Woodlark Islands, 115 and 165 miles respectively north and North-east of Milne Bay, to provide bases for medium bombers and fighters to attack New Britain and support Halsey’s operations in the Solomons. These practical recommendations were approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the plan with which the destinies of the Australian forces were to be so intimately linked was set out in a cabled directive from Marshall dated 28th March.
Under the heading “Command” the directive stated:
(a) The operations outlined in this Directive will be conducted under the direction of the Supreme Commander, South-West Pacific Area.
(b) Operations in the Solomon Islands will be under the direct command of the Commander, South Pacific Area, operating under general directives of the Supreme Commander, South-West Pacific Area.
(c) Units of the Pacific Ocean Area, other than those assigned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to task forces engaged in these operations, will remain under the control of the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Ocean Area.
The tasks were then outlined:
(a) Establish airfields on Kiriwina and Woodlark Islands.
(b) Seize Lae–Salamaua–Finschhafen–Madang area and occupy western New Britain.
(c) Seize and occupy the Solomon Islands to include the southern portion of Bougainville.
The intentions were, in the words of the directive, “to inflict losses on Japanese forces, to deny these areas to Japan, to contain Japanese forces in the Pacific theatre by maintaining the initiative, and to prepare for the ultimate seizure of the Bismarck Archipelago”. MacArthur was finally instructed to submit to the Joint Chiefs of Staff his plan, including the composition of the forces to be used and the sequence and timing of the operations.
Thus, MacArthur was in strategic command of the South-West and South Pacific Areas, but Halsey retained tactical control in his area. Subject only to directives from the Joint Chiefs, Nimitz allocated ships and aircraft from his fleet as he saw fit. Early in April Halsey flew from his headquarters in Noumea to Brisbane to see MacArthur. Later, he described the meeting thus:
I had never met the General. ... Five minutes after I reported, I felt as if we were lifelong friends. I have seldom seen a man who makes a quicker, stronger, more favorable impression. He was then sixty-three years old, but he could have
passed as fifty. His hair was jet black; his eyes were clear; his carriage was erect. If he had been wearing civilian clothes, I still would have known at once that he was a soldier. The respect that I conceived for him that afternoon grew steadily during the war. ... I can recall no flaw in our relationship. We had arguments, but they always ended pleasantly. Not once did he, my superior officer, ever force his decisions upon me. On the few occasions when I disagreed with him, I told him so, and we discussed the issue until one of us changed his mind.12
These then were the general Allied plans in April 1943 when both sides paused for a breathing space after the bloody battles for Papua and Guadalcanal. Until March 1942 the information available to the Allies about the Japanese Army had been disturbingly scanty. It was supplemented considerably as a result of the capture of documents and prisoners in the Papuan campaign, and the Australian Intelligence staff became a main source of new information about the opposing army, but still far too little was known.13
A fortunate incident early in March 1943, however, transformed the situation. At that time the 47th Australian Battalion was garrisoning Goodenough Island. On 7th March and for the next few days groups of Japanese – survivors of the convoy dispersed or sunk in the Bismarck Sea battle of 2nd to 5th March – landed on the island. Between the 8th and the 14th Australian patrols killed 72 Japanese, captured 42 and found 9 dead on a raft. One patrol, under Captain Pascoe,14 stalked a group of eight Japanese, who had landed in two flat-bottomed boats, killed them all, and found that the boats contained large quantities of documents in sealed tins.
This important-looking discovery was hurried back to the headquarters in Brisbane where the documents were found to include a complete Army List showing the names of all Japanese officers and their units. Examination and collation provided a complete and detailed picture of the Japanese Army and revealed the existence of many units hitherto unknown.15 Soon afterwards Intelligence officers from all Allied headquarters attended a conference at Washington at which the new information was re-examined and a system of interchange arranged which resulted
in all partners thenceforward having an extensive and accurate knowledge of the Japanese Army’s composition and deployment.16
The time had gone when the Japanese had hoped to cut the American supply route to Australia by capturing New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa. When the Japanese realised that this was beyond them, they had concentrated on preparations to hold a line running from Timor across the Arafura Sea to Wewak, Lae and Salamaua, thence along the south coast of New Britain to Rabaul and south to New Georgia in the Solomons.
Since the early days of the war Field Marshal Count Terauchi’s Southern Army Headquarters at Saigon had controlled the XIV Army in the Philippines, the XVI Army in the Netherlands East Indies and the Japanese forces in Burma and Malaya.17 A new army – the XIX – was established in January 1943, under the Southern Army, to take over from the XVI in Timor, the Arafura Sea, Dutch New Guinea, Ceram, Ambon, Halmahera and Morotai. The troops in New Guinea and the Solomons comprised the Eighth Area Army, commanded by Lieut-General Hitoshi Imamura, who was under the direct control of Imperial General Headquarters. Under Imamura were Lieut-General Haruyoshi Hyakutake’s XVII Army in the Solomons and Lieut-General Hatazo Adachi’s XVIII Army (20th, 41st and 51st Divisions) in New Guinea. In the area about 400 combat aircraft were available. Japanese naval forces based on Truk were estimated to consist of 6 battleships, 2 aircraft carriers, 15 cruisers, approximately 40 destroyers and 27 submarines.
Arrayed against Imamura’s Eighth Area Army in April 1943 were the forces of the South and South-West Pacific Areas. Under his command Halsey had the 2nd Marine Division and two American infantry divisions (25th and Americal) which had taken part in later fighting on Guadalcanal, three fresh American divisions (the 3rd Marine, the 37th from Fiji and the 43rd from New Zealand and New Caledonia), and the 3rd New Zealand Division. He also had a powerful fleet, consisting of 6 battleships, 2 aircraft carriers, 3 escort carriers, 13 cruisers, approximately 50 destroyers, and numerous smaller ships and submarines; 350 carrier-based aircraft and 500 land-based aircraft of the Thirteenth American Air Force and the Royal New Zealand Air Force completed Halsey’s force, described by the American naval historian as “a well-oiled fighting machine, strong in all three elements”.18
In the SWPA, MacArthur had two American infantry divisions (32nd and 41st), but the 32nd and one regiment of the 41st were tired and depleted as a result of the Buna campaign. The 1st Marine Division was recuperating in Australia. His main infantry force comprised the Australian Army of twelve divisions (ten infantry and two armoured). About half of the 1,400 aircraft of the Fifth Air Force under the command of General Kenney were RAAF planes of a variety of British, American and Australian types. It was in his naval forces that MacArthur suffered most by comparison with Nimitz and Halsey. In March MacArthur’s naval force had been renamed the Seventh Fleet.19 Thus
by a stroke of Admiral King’s pen (wrote the American naval historian) the impoverished Southwest Pacific Force achieved fleet status. On its birthday, however, the new Seventh Fleet was still measured in tens rather than thousands. On paper it made a brave showing with seven task forces composed of strangely assorted surface, air and underwater craft scattered between northern Papua and south-western Australia, under three different flags (Australian, American and Netherlands), but most of its strength was still listed as “upon reporting”, which meant assigned ships en route or still in American waters. Planes, corvettes, minelayers and destroyers ... were busy searching for Japanese submarines in Australian waters. Vice-Admiral Crutchley’s cruisers (HMAS Australia and Hobart, USS Phoenix) waited for their services to be required. There were a few tenders, only two tankers and but one transport; freight to New Guinea was hauled by the “Army’s Navy” of small chartered Australian vessels, or the Dutch ships that had survived the Buna campaign. Most skeletal of all was the Amphibious Force, commanded by Rear-Admiral Barbey.20
The paucity of the naval forces of the South-West Pacific was due not only to lack of ships and beaching craft, but to the rivalries between the American Services. Believing that the Pacific war was primarily a naval problem, the American Navy was reluctant to place substantial numbers of naval ships at the disposal of an American military commander; a fact which not only complicated MacArthur’s planning but caused him to look around for an alternative naval force.
As the decisions of the Casablanca Conference descended from the high places in Washington to the Allied commanders in the Pacific, it became obvious that any military offensive in the South-West Pacific in 1943 would have to be carried out mainly by the Australian Army, just as during the bitter campaigns of 1942.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Army and Commander of the Allied Land Forces in the South-West Pacific, General Sir Thomas Blamey had the dual task of controlling operations and administration. His main administrative problem early in 1943 was how to obtain enough men to sustain the Australian part of his army.
As a result of the expansion of the army in the critical months of 1942 and the subsequent heavy losses, chiefly because of tropical diseases, a struggle for manpower had begun between each of the three Services, and
the munitions and aircraft factories. In March 1943 the War Cabinet noted that the army’s actual strength was 79,000 below the establishment and that it required a monthly intake of 12,500 men. “If this manpower is not forthcoming,” said a War Cabinet Minute, “it will be necessary either to reduce the striking force or to reduce the number of other formations to maintain it. This is a critical question of supreme importance.” On 30th January the War Cabinet had ordered a review of war production programs and of plans for the expansion of the Services. Now, in March, it directed that such a review be expedited, and “that the personal attention of the Commander-in-Chief, AMF, be again drawn to this matter in regard to the delay that has arisen”.
Already, after the Papuan operations, Blamey had carried out a fairly far-reaching reorganisation of the army “partly”, as he wrote afterwards, “as a result of experiences in New Guinea and the general need for saving manpower and partly as a result of my desire to simplify the administration of the Army”. It provided that the First and Second Armies should take over certain responsibility from the three eastern lines of communication areas with consequent saving of manpower; the coast-defence units were reduced by 3,630, and further reduction was planned. Five infantry divisions-5th, 6th, 7th, 9th and 11th – were being organised as “jungle divisions” with reduced transport, artillery, etc. The 2nd Motor Division was being disbanded and the men thus released were to be used to bring to full strength an armoured force to consist of the 1st and 3rd Armoured Divisions, 4th Armoured Brigade, and 3rd Army Tank Brigade.
On 30th April the War Cabinet had before it Blamey’s views on the problems. It had to bear in mind the advice of the War Commitments Committee that 10,000 persons a month were the maximum available for the three Services, and for munitions and aircraft production. Blamey said that any reorganisation was limited by the need (a) to prepare a force of three infantry divisions for offensive operations in accordance with General MacArthur’s plans, and (b) to maintain adequate forces to defend the mainland of Australia and Australian territory in New Guinea, and to provide a reserve for relieving units in New Guinea. He assessed the total at nine infantry divisions, two armoured divisions, one armoured brigade, one army tank brigade with proportionate non-divisional and base units. Three infantry divisions (apart from those required for offensive operations) would be required for New Guinea.
This requirement insofar as the defence of Australia is concerned is based on the altered strategic situations since the submission of the C-in-C’s last appreciation in Sep 42, when Japanese Naval and Army units were concentrated in great strength in the South-West Pacific, and the position was one of extreme gravity. Since then, however, the recent successful campaigns in the Solomons and New Guinea areas, and the effectiveness of air attack on Japanese invasion convoys have improved our position considerably by forcing the enemy front farther to the north and seizing the initiative. This has not removed the danger of invasion since the enemy’s reaction has been to increase his land and air forces to a very great degree. It is
obvious that he does not intend to accept his defeats without a great effort to wrest the initiative from us.
In these circumstances it is a justifiable and indeed an unavoidable risk to weaken our defensive forces in areas most remote from the enemy in favour of concentrating such forces in areas in which they are most likely to be required. With this in view the forces in Australia are now in course of being disposed as follows:
Queensland – Torres Strait Force (approximately one battalion group), one armoured division, and brigades in movements to and from New Guinea (in addition the offensive force of three divisions and ancillary units is en route to or in training in the Atherton area).
Darwin – One infantry division and ancillary units.
Western Australia – One infantry division, one armoured division and ancillary units.
New South Wales – One infantry division (mainly under-age personnel) and ancillary units, one armoured brigade and one army tank brigade.
Other States – Miscellaneous units but no field formations.
The allocation of three infantry divisions for the defence of New Guinea is based on the need for holding areas of strategic importance, and the provision of a small force for reinforcing such areas or other points that may be threatened. The areas in question are Milne Bay–Goodenough Island, which requires a minimum of one division, Buna which requires another division, Wau which requires at a minimum two brigades, and Moresby for which there remains one brigade as a general reserve and for Moresby’s defence. ... In addition to the AMF formations, arrangements have been made to retain 158 US Regiment for garrison duties in New Guinea, whilst the remainder of the US forces in Australia are being trained as a Task Force for special operations.
In view of increased Japanese interest in the Arafura Sea area, the garrison at Merauke is being increased from one battalion group to a brigade group less a battalion. Any serious Japanese threat in the direction of Merauke would have to be met from the force being prepared in Australia for future offensive operations.
Blamey stated that he was disbanding some ancillary units, reducing base units and replacing army men by men of the Volunteer Defence Corps in the coast defences. The reduction so achieved would not exceed 20,000, and further field formations would have to be disbanded if the intake into the army – now 4,000 a month, and gradually decreasing – was not increased. The monthly wastage rate as soon as major operations began again was estimated at 11,800, leaving a deficiency of 7,800 a month.
If further releases from industry could not be made, Blamey advised that “the force being prepared for offensive operations should be reduced by one infantry division (with ancillary units) for the reason that the Australian New Guinea and mainland defensive component has been reduced to the barest minimum”. The War Cabinet decided that the Minister for Defence should discuss the matter with MacArthur; and that a force of three divisions must be maintained for major offensives.
In this appreciation the size of the forces required for purely defensive roles in Australia and New Guinea seems, in retrospect, to have been estimated on a lavish scale, particularly in view of the naval and air losses Japan had suffered: there were to be three divisions in New Guinea,
three (one armoured) in northern and western Australia, and three (including one armoured) in eastern Australia, in addition to the three AIF divisions retraining in north Queensland.
Thus Australia, with a population of 7,000,000, was maintaining twelve divisions and now had in the army nearly 500,000 men, about 7 per cent of the population. The number of divisions was greater in proportion to population than was being maintained, for example, by Britain or the United States. At the same time Australia was engaged on a relatively big munitions program. Some reduction of the army was inevitable.
On 24th April the AMF actually numbered 466,901 (not including 22,823 women21) of whom 285,931 were in the AIF, including 125,912 who had enlisted in that force from the militia. On the same date there were 128,197 members of the RAAF, including 16,746 serving overseas; and 30,658 members of the RAN including 17,199 afloat.22
In New Guinea there were 54,809 Australian troops of whom 40,534 were in operational units. The largest part of the Australian Army (141,650) was in Queensland; 35,033 troops were stationed in the
Northern Territory; and 60,970 in Western Australia. The American Army in the Australian area numbered 111,494 including 40,023 round Brisbane and 30,058 in New Guinea; but only 18,124 of the American troops in New Guinea were in operational units. MacArthur also had 48,961 members of the American Army Air Force, making a grand total of 160,455 American troops.
Militia units as a whole could now become part of the AIF if 75 per cent of the unit’s actual strength or 65 per cent of the authorised “war establishment”, whichever was the greater, had volunteered to join the AIF
The role of the militia in future operations had been finally decided by the passing on 19th February 1943 of the Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act 1943 commonly known as the Militia Bill. The bill defined the “South-West Pacific zone” to which the militia could henceforth be sent as an area bounded on the west by the 110th meridian of east longitude, on the north by the equator, and on the east by the 159th meridian of east longitude.23
At the end of April 1943 the Australian formations were organised as follows:
First Army: (Lieut-General Lavarack) – Toowoomba, Queensland:
4th Division (6th, 11th, 12th, 14th Brigades)
3rd Armoured Division (2nd Armoured and 1st Motor Brigades)
Torres Strait Force
II Corps: (Lieut-General Morshead24) – Barrine, Queensland:
6th Division (16th, 30th Brigades)
7th Division (18th, 21st, 25th Brigades)
9th Division (20th, 24th, 26th Brigades)
Second Army: (Lieut-General Mackay) – Parramatta, New South Wales:
1st Division (1st, 9th, 28th Brigades)
3rd Army Tank Brigade
III Corps: (Lieut-General Bennett) – Mount Lawley, Western Australia:
2nd Division (2nd, 5th, 8th Brigades)
1st Armoured Division (1st Armoured Brigade, 3rd Motor Brigade)
Northern Territory Force: (Major-General A. S. Allen) – Darwin:
12th Division (13th, 19th, 23rd Brigades)
New Guinea Force: (Lieut-General Mackay, acting25) – Port Moresby:
3rd Division (17th Brigade)
5th Division (4th, 29th Brigades)
11th Division (7th, 15th Brigades)
3rd Brigade – Adelaide
4th Armoured Brigade – Singleton, New South Wales
Major-General S. G. Savige’s 3rd Division headquarters was, in April, establishing itself at Bulolo, Major-General E. J. Milford’s 5th was at Milne Bay, and Major-General C. A. Clowes’ 11th at Port Moresby.
Just across the Dutch border on the southern coast of New Guinea the 62nd Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Haupt26), assisted by a Netherlands East Indies company, was garrisoning Merauke. The battalion had arrived between December 1942 and February 1943 and was given the task of defending the airfield and docks area. Between New Guinea and Australia was Torres Strait Force (Colonel Langford27) responsible for the defence of the islands in the strait.
American forces under the control of New Guinea Force at this time included the 158th Regiment attached to the 11th Division in Port Moresby and the 41st Division (162nd, 163rd and 186th Regiments) in the Oro Bay area. Back in Rockhampton Lieut-General Robert L. Eichelberger’s I American Corps controlled only one division – the 32nd (126th, 127th, 128th Regiments) at Brisbane.
Of the nine AIF and eighteen militia infantry brigades comprising the army in April, only one AIF brigade (the 17th) and four militia brigades (4th, 29th, 7th, 15th) were in New Guinea. With such a large and vulnerable coastline and with such a comparatively small force in New Guinea, the army was finding increasing use for the Independent Companies,28 the first seven of which had carried out infantry tasks along Australia’s vast defence arc from Timor to New Caledonia.
By April 1943 15 AIF and 8 militia battalions had gained battle experience in New Guinea. The militia battalions belonged to the 7th Brigade (9th, 25th, 61st Battalions) which had taken part in the successful defence of Milne Bay; the 30th Brigade (3rd, 39th and 55th/53rd Battalions) which had fought over the Kokoda Trail, and, in company with the 14th Brigade (now 36th and 49th Battalions) had joined the 4 AIF brigades attacking Gona and Sanananda. In July 3 of these 8 battalions – the 3rd, 39th and 49th – would be disbanded and their officers and men distributed among the units of the 6th Division as reinforcements, leaving only 5 battle-tried militia infantry battalions.
As mentioned, two armoured divisions (Major-General H. C. H. Robertson’s 1st and Major-General W. Bridgeford’s 3rd), the 4th Armoured Brigade and the 3rd Army Tank Brigade were being maintained in Australia. There had been 185 tanks in Australia in April 1942; there were now, in April 1943, 1,672, and 775 more had been ordered in Australia.29
For most of the volunteers who had enlisted in the 1st Armoured Division in 1941 believing that they would be serving in the Middle East early in 1942 the past year had been one of frustration. By the spring of 1942 Robertson had trained the division to as near perfection as a formation is likely to achieve without being in action; and sprinkled through it were a considerable number of officers who had served in North Africa and Syria, chiefly in the mechanised cavalry. In retrospect it seems unfortunate, for a variety of reasons, that a more sanguine view of the possibility of invasion of Australia was not taken in the summer of 1942-43 and that this fine division was not transferred to Africa, perhaps in the transports which brought the 9th Division home, to play a part in the coming campaigns there and in Europe.
Around the arc embracing the Japanese conquests there was, in April, little actual fighting between opposing ground forces. Indians and British were withdrawing in Burma after the failure of the Chindit operation and the operations in Arakan; the Chinese were now in the eighth year of their dogged resistance to the Japanese. In New Guinea Brigadier M. J. Moten’s Kanga Force was patrolling against the Japanese among the jungle-clad precipitous ridges of the Mubo area.30
The men of Kanga Force knew nothing of the great plans for the future; only that they had saved Wau, that they were now held up near Mubo and that they presumed their objective was Salamaua. It seemed to these Australians, fighting in such primitive conditions, that the Japanese sun was still at its zenith; and that it would be an immense and arduous task to fight from Wau to Salamaua, let alone from Wau to Tokyo. Soldiers and civilians alike had watched the bitter campaigns of attrition in Guadalcanal and Papua with anxiety and foreboding. What alternative was there to this slogging, exhausting fighting where gains were to be measured almost by the yard stick of trench warfare? It was a grim and gloomy future and none could foresee the end of the war if similar battles had to be fought for all islands along the route to Tokyo.
The operations in New Guinea were now under the control of Lieut-General Mackay, who, since January, had been acting commander of New Guinea Force. Mackay, a sage, exacting and resolute commander, had led the 6th Division in the campaigns in North Africa and Greece early in 1941, and from September 1941 to April 1942 had commanded the Home Forces in Australia. Since then his substantive appointment had been that of commander of the Second Army. On 24th March Major-General Savige, another former officer of the 6th Division, now commanding the 3rd Division, arrived at Port Moresby to take command in the only active battle zone in the South-West Pacific. At this time few commanders of his rank had had more varied active service: a junior infantry officer on Gallipoli and in France in 1914-18, commander of an independent force in Kurdistan in 1918, and of an infantry brigade –
the 17th – in operations in North Africa, Greece and Syria in 1940-41. In order to see his new area, and to renew his acquaintance with his old brigade which, it so happened, was to be his main fighting force, Savige visited the battle areas between 30th March and 13th April. He returned to Wau six days later, and on 23rd April moved with his divisional headquarters to Bulolo. On the same day he took command of all troops in the area and Kanga Force ceased to exist.